The Quest is published and copyright by David Ferguson. Contact him at

Return to the Gilbreth Network home page

Return to the current issue of The Quest and the index of other back issues

Inside this issue (Summer 1999):

In Search of Gilbreths' Germany, Part II

The Millennium is Beginning to Bug Me

The Battle for Recognition

The Dying Art of Bricklaying

A Call for Papers

Vol. 3, No. 2 Summer 1999

In Search of Gilbreths' Germany, Part II

[note: for Part I of this series see the Spring 1999 issue of The Quest]

The Gilbreth Quest

After the business portion of our visit was complete, my fellow San Franciscans and I bid farewell to our wonderful German hosts, on a Wednesday evening. Early the next morning, armed with enough German to order black coffee and beer, I set off to discover Frank Gilbreth's Germany.

Regarding my lack of German, I feel a kinship with Frank and his constant resolutions to learn German. I'd like to think that our lack of resolve means that there are more important things on our minds. Indeed, my only serious effort at a foreign language had been four, long years of high school French, which was not well received in Germany.

My first destination was Mannheim. There, was the National Museum of Technology and Industry (which reminded me of our own Franklin Institute and Smithsonian). The museum housed the archival papers of Irene Witte. Fraulein Witte was probably the closest thing Frank ever had to a protege. She had worked at the Berlin factory where Frank had his first German consulting job. She later became his German representative and translator.

The train trip between Dusseldorf and Mannheim takes you past a mix of houses, factories and castles. The tracks snake along the banks of the Rhine River, still beautiful despite the obvious industrial growth.

Think me odd, but the thing that sticks out in my mind were the river barges. Now, we've all probably seen barges on rivers, bays and lakes in the US. They are, without a doubt, the ugliest thing on the water; dirty, rusty and piled high with God knows what. On the other hand, German barges are almost beautiful. They have rust-free hulls and the tops are covered with light blue canvas-looking material, stretched over arch-shaped ribs. The tugs pulling them are equally clean and well-kept. From a distance it looks like a colorful mother duck leading her children who look like long blue bubbles.

The train makes a switch-back stop in Frankfort. While Dusseldorf's architecture mixed old and new, Frankfort skyline was as modern looking as any city in the U.S.

When I arrived in Mannheim, I found that the railroad station sits in the middle of a lovely downtown square. A nice hotel and several restaurants were within a few short blocks.

The hotel had a different flavor from most I've been in. It was old enough so that the casement window in my room could open out over rain covered streets. Because of the narrow streets, sounds of cars and people below softly echoed into the room. It was a very pleasant time, just sitting and enjoying the flavor of the moment.

I found an interesting oddity at the hotel, as I was to later find in other stops. This hotel had the smallest elevator I've ever ridden in my life. With my two bags, there was barely room for anyone else (and my bags were carry-on size). I think you were supposed place your bags in the elevator, reach around and punch the floor button, then race up the stairs to meet the car.

I found that all of the German hotels I stayed in also were trying to accommodate American preferences when it came to bathrooms. In the past, you were warned that most European hotels had one bathroom serving an entire floor of the hotel and that you'd better travel with you own toilet paper, since the European equivalent was so unrefined that there were chunks of wood in it. I'm happy to report that both conditions have largely changed, at least in the cities I visited.

The bathrooms were small, but functional. I noticed that they all were located one step up from the room floor. This was due to the fact that they were all modular units which had been added to the rooms after the hotel was built. The toilet paper, while not squeezably soft, did its job with no ill effects. The only odd thing were the towels. There were hand and bath towels, but no washcloths. Instead, each shower had a liquid soap dispenser. One would simply get a handful of the liquid soap and start lathering. You rinsed off with the hand-held shower head.

The Gilbreths would have probably liked it, because I found that this method took an average of two minutes off my normal showering time. I will admit, however, that I did miss my rough old washcloth.

The Witte archive was housed at the Landesmuseum fur Technik und Arbeit. The actual collection of papers was kept on a shelf in a corner of the curator's office. We each did our work and shared a pot of coffee brewing in a Mr. Coffee near a bookcase. Outside, the day was uninviting, being overcast and drizzling.

Suffice it to say, the Witte/Gilbreth letters made for an interesting afternoon's reading. It was interesting to see the growth of the relationship, from the time when she was Frank's eyes and ears for goings on a the factory, when he was back in the U.S., to her later discussions with Lillian Gilbreth when they were both writing books and developing management theory.

When you see the sheer volume of letters that passed between Witte and the Gilbreths and realizing that this was just one of their friends, you wonder where they got the time to write. Being without television must have had some benefits.

As I was leaving the museum, I looked quickly at exhibits wishing there was more time to visit. But the building was closing and I was on a tight schedule.

There are volumes written advising the European tourist about handling money on their trips. I found it interesting that they advise that the best rate of exchange is through a bank doing international trade. I had gone to such a bank in San Francisco, and ended up paying about $15.00 to acquire about 300 DM. The situation was quite different in Germany.

First, if you plan on using credit cards, carry at least two or three major types as hotels don't always take any single type (contrary to the commercials, they don't take VISA or MasterCard). In my case, neither of my cards were accepted at the hotel. I went to an ATM and was able to use my bank's ATM card. For another 300 DM, the fee was $5.00; one-third the cost of the book advice.

The next morning, I thought I'd chance the free continental breakfast at the hotel before I hopped back on the train. The American version of the continental breakfast (which was supposedly derived from the European) would have coffee, juice, a (generally dried out) croissant and maybe some fruit. Well, I think the el cheapo American hotels haven't been telling us everything about how they really eat on the continent.

The hotel's breakfast made the Denny's Grand Slam breakfast look like a snack. There was a whole table full of different types of rolls and bread, a whole pineapple surrounded by a giant tray of fruit, three varieties of hot cereal, bacon, sausage, and soft boiled and scrambled eggs. They also had another touch I learned to like. They had trays of various cold cuts (cheeses and meats) along with garnishes such as sweet peppers and olives. Along with some fruit, it was a tasty start to the day.

On to Check-Point Charlie

My next destination was Jena (pronounced Yena); home of the Zeiss Works, where Frank Gilbreth once consulted and lectured on motion study. I left on the train, which now headed northeast. I vaguely knew that Jena was south of Berlin and hence would have been in the old East Germany, the DDR.

I hadn't given the old Iron Curtain and the new reunification much thought. Indeed, I had never believed my history teachers when they said that splitting up Germany after the war kept them from rising up again. But, if there are still those who think that the reunification means we'll have to fight another war, buddy, you've got a long wait.

None of the maps I had showed where the borders of the old DDR were. So, I tried to remember the old maps I'd seen in school or on the news. While I'm closing my eyes, trying to picture the shape of the borders, we hit a rail switch that felt like we'd run over a rock. I looked out over the countryside and saw a different place with run-down farm buildings and scrubby looking fields. The rail bed was so poorly maintained you could feel every joint in the rails.

My taxi cab ride to Zeiss was an education. Do you remember the pictures of storybook towns in The Pied Piper or The Bremen Town Musicians? Well, picture that town in need of urban redevelopment and that's Jena.

Through winding hillside streets, once beautiful buildings stand (or barely so) in decay. In one section, two out of every three buildings were vacant with varying degrees of damage. And, keep in mind, this is in a town with at least one, large viable employer.

The Zeiss Works, by contrast, is a very modern and well kept facility. Indeed, by even the standards of the best American industry, this operation stands proud. Does anyone know of an American company who takes such pride in its heritage that it devotes a half a building floor to archiving the company historical documents and hires a PhD to maintain it?

I met with Dr. Wolfgang Wimmer, Zeiss' archivist. At first we had a bit of confusion as to who spoke German and who didn't. Since most of their files were in German, he helped with translations once I'd narrowed the area of my interest. Indeed, we had quite an interesting visit, working together to fill in information on the little bit of history that joined Frank Gilbreth and the Zeiss Works.

We found out about one of Frank's post-war visits to Jena. Zeiss still owed him money from consulting work before the war. Frank was not happy about a pre-war bill being paid with the inflated German currency and felt that the rate should be adjusted for inflation. They finally agreed to pay the debt in trade for photographic equipment (since Zeiss made very fine photographic lens). However, the prices were more than the debt and Frank didn't want to pay any extra. Finally, they agreed to give him credit at one of their customer's stores. Frank got a viewer for stereo glass slides, as his belated payment. This slide viewer, today, sits in the back room of the Purdue Special Collection archives.

Dr. Wimmer and I sat around talking like two old collages discussing the recent history of Zeiss. He expressed his dismay at a recent book on the history of the company which spent a great deal of time on their work during WWII. He showed me pictures of Nazi officials meeting with the plant managers. Interestingly enough, after the war, because Zeiss was part of a worldwide company, they became one of the few companies behind the Iron Curtain, to act as a capitalistic enterprise.

I left Dr. Wimmer, and was now on the train to Berlin. There, I was lucky enough to meet with a Gilbreth Network member, Rita Pokorny.

As my time was brief (I had an early flight heading home the next morning) she gave me a nighttime tour of the city. Just as the old East Germany was the poor, cousin of West Germany, so too were the contrasts between the two sides of the once divided city.

Berlin was a contrast of lights. On a main street, with lighted corporate names such as Fuji, IBM, and Ford toping skyscrapers, and on to the quiet lighting of the park-like setting leading to the Brandenburg Gate. The old Russian zone is like a road with a burned out street lamp. However, I was driven past some nightclubs which sported long lines of young people from the shiny side of town, ready to let their hair down.

Unlike the stark look of Jena, you can see the hope of the future, because many of the vacant lots were in various stages of building construction. If Berlin continues to grow like this, as it once again becomes the capitol of Germany, it could repeat its role as the shining star of Germany.

This clearly wasn't the Berlin Frank Gilbreth saw over eighty years ago, yet, somehow I think there was a similar spirit in the new and the old. My next trip to Germany will surely require more time for this interesting city.

The Return Home

As I buckled my seatbelt, in preparation for the long flight home, my thoughts had a chance to catch up with me, from what had been a very busy week. Prior to this trip, my only foreign travel had been day trips to Tijuana, Mexico (I know, such class). As I looked at my nearly new passport, I knew I'd have to make some better use of it in the future.

To enjoy foreign travel, you have to have a thirst for new experiences and learning. One of my group observed that I always appeared to enjoy myself and relished new experiences. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth always had this thirst for new experiences, both at home and in their thousands upon thousands of miles of world travel. In that sense, I think I did see the Gilbreths' Germany.

The Millennium is Beginning to Bug Me

With the approach of the Millennium, we are deluged with a hype which rivals the Bicentennial, in 1976. At least with the Bicentennial, we could agree on the year of the celebration, while with the Millennium, some say 2000 and others 2001 as being the actual start. I haven't heard much about this discrepancy lately, so I suspect that after all the parties are over, the experts will come out saying we made a mistake and the Millennium is actually 2001, so we have to start the whole thing all over again.

Another difference was that in 1976, no one was forecasting the technological equivalent of Armageddon as part of the celebration. I'm particularly amused at the survivalist/militia types (our motto: Paranoid and Loving It) who are running around buying up freeze-dried food, gold coins and back issues of Soldier of Fortune and Mother Earth magazines, to protect against the Y2K "bomb."

Another manifestation of this mania is the profusion of lists of the Millennium or Century. Every venerable news organization is coming out with its own list of who the pseudo-intellectuals on their respective staffs thinks are the most noteworthy people of our times. This leads me to the real point of all of this.

Dr. Gerald Nadler forwarded me an e-mail regarding the Time magazine web site where you could vote, in various categories, for whom you thought were the most noteworthy people of the century. While neither Gilbreth nor Taylor were among the competitors, I found it rather shocking as to who had been listed.

For "Person of the Century," of all the choices, Adolf Hitler had been voted #3, over the likes of Gandhi, King or Einstein. Under the category of "Heroes and Icons" G. Gordon Liddy was listed as #5. This, to me was spooky. There are either more idiots in the world or they've just figured out how to stuff the ballot box. I would urge the members to visit their web site and cast a more intelligent vote. The site can be reached at (

The Battle for Recognition

You may remember our past battles trying to gain the proper recognition for the work of the Gilbreths. The venerable member of the Gilbreth Network, James Perkins, has continued to wage this battle. Every time a magazine or newspaper prints an article about Taylor or the history of management, Mr. Perkins is writing a letter urging the proper recognition of the Gilbreths. He has urged people to look at the body of work contained in the Films of Frank Gilbreth, as showing the vast contributions made by the Gilbreths.

It was truly ironic that on July 9th's broadcast of Peter Jennings' ABC News, that their piece on Frederick Taylor relied heavily on clips from the Films of Frank Gilbreth. However, the body of the piece used the clips as examples of Taylor's work, even to the point of showing kitchen design (which I believe was one of Lillian Gilbreth's kitchen projects) and crediting the work to Taylor. They never once, credited the Gilbreths with their contributions or even for the film shown.

At the bottom of this mess was our old friend, Robert Kanigel, who was interviewed for the piece. For a man who is not even an historian (he teaches writing at the University of Baltimore), he certainly seems to have the ear of the media. It is sad, that a man with a "Reader's Digest" knowledge of history, ends up being the spokesperson for an important era in the industrial history of our country.

On a much happier note, a small victory was recently discovered. Data Chem Software is a company which writes study guides for professional certification exams. In a sample quiz, for the Certified Professional Ergonomists exam, they posed the following question:

"The early 1900's work that included the study of skill, performance, fatigue and the design of work environment were completed by:

a) Frederick Taylor

b) Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

c) H. Heinrich

d) P. Fungelli"

Happily, the answer was Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. All I can say is that it's about time!!

Indeed, this is a substantial victory in that many, uninformed people in the field of Ergonomics, for some reason, seem to think Taylor was the pioneer in the field. One such article appeared in IIE's Solutions. In a response to the article, I pointed out the author's error. There was never one letter rebutting me contention.

As I have pointed out in the past, like James Perkins, we need to keep fighting the good fight. We not only need to fight for recognition of the Gilbreths' work, but for the important principles they espoused.

 The Dying Art of Bricklaying

Frank Gilbreth spent years perfecting a scientific system of bricklaying. If he were alive today, you'd probably read of him giving some bricklayers in Greenville, South Carolina a sound thrashing for destroying the artful craft of bricklaying. In a recent newspaper article, about how home construction hit a 20 year high, they included a photo of workers at Alpha Siding of Greenville, installing a brick siding on a new home.

The picture depicts a guy on the ground throwing a brick, through the air, to another worker on top of the scaffold. So much for the careful arrangement of a brick packet, let alone safety (the scaffold had no guard rails). The only saving grace was that at least the mason was standing on a lower tier so that he could reach the materials at waist height, as Frank had assured with his own scaffold design.

Still, one is tempted to say, "So soon they forget."

A Call for Papers

We've been fortunate in having a number of new members join our group since the last newsletter. For both new and old members, we want to encourage your written contributions to The Quest.

All types of articles are welcome, whether it be a story about your research or application of the Gilbreth principles, or just a news item. Your contributions will be a valued addition to the newsletter.

This year, we will do things a little differently. For those whose articles are published, we will offer a prize to the best contribution (as judged by myself and reader feedback). The prize will be a book by or about the Gilbreths, to be determined at a later date. There are two more editions of The Quest, this year, so get your typing fingers limbered up.

We ask that submissions be in one of the following formats, in order of preference. A word processing file, sent on disk or e-mailed, in Word Perfect or MS Word; a typed, double spaced manuscript; or a neatly, hand written paper. Deadline for the next issue is September 15, 1999.

Send articles to:

David Ferguson

Gilbreth Network Coordinator